29 March 2009


most of us know that one of the many brutal aspects of slavery in america was the sundering of families. white slave owners viewed their black slaves as mere property, and frequently sold or gave away individual family members -- a mother, a father, a husband, a wife, a child. following the end of the civil war and the end of slavery (ended by law, if not always in practice), the south teemed with black men, women and children moving from place to place, trying desperately to locate their missing loved ones. most were not successful.

i experienced a window into this heartbreak in 1985, when i lost legal custody of my son to his mother. subsequently she and her husband proceeded to systematically alienate my son from me. i was demonized, my character was assassinated, and numerous barriers were erected to hinder the emotional ties between father and son, as well as to prevent visitation itself. ultimately, caught in the middle between warring adults, my boy did what he had to do to preserve his own sanity -- he made the choice to take sides. and logically, he chose to align with the people he had to live with. he began to reject me, to refuse to spend court-sanctioned visitation time with me, and finally would not see me at all. from january 1988 until the summer of 1993, i was cut out of my son's life.

i never gave up on him. i placed regular phone calls, and wrote regular letters. i even kept up with monthly child support payments to his mother, though she had reneged on her responsibility to foster his relationship with me. over time, as my son entered his middle teens and began to think independently, he recognized the disconnect between the libelous, distorted picture they'd painted of me, and the truth of his own memories of me. bravely (given that his stepfather was a violent alcoholic, and his mother was an enabler of that behavior) he insisted on spending two summer vacations with me. it was our first time together in five years. i'm so proud of him for having the determination and courage to reconnect with me.

getting to know each other again wasn't without a few bumpy spots. but that was nothing, nothing compared to the daily, hourly misery and pain and horror of being kept forcibly apart from my son for all those years.. that passage was a cauldron for me, and in surviving it i discovered reservoirs of inner strength and resilience i never knew were there.

all of which gives me a deep appreciation for the strength and resilience of the black community, then and now. their suffering was orders of magnitude worse than mine. to better understand the issue of severed families, i highly recommend the four-hour PBS series "African American Lives", which reveals the geneology and family stories of nine black americans. it cannot fail to touch your heart.

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